Friday, November 1, 2013

Where is the fire?

The ancients saw fire as one of the 4 basic elements of the created order.  Fire is transformative, purgative, and alters whatever it touches. It is fearsome; it destroys one order in favor of a new.  We use this basic element to describe more than physical fire.  We use it to talk about zeal and passion.  We tell fans of a team to 'fire up'.  When we speak about burning with something, we mean that we have something that so consumes us as to change everything about us and want to spread that to others.  Without fire there can be no heat nor light.  Without it, their is only anonymity, bitter cold, and death. Anything devoid of a fire from within  will simply peter out to death.

The world understands this concept.  It stokes fires to rage for its own concepts.  Sports teams, political parties, Hollywood, the music industry, social causes, and such all know the absolute necessity for stoking these flames.  The see the value of rallying their fans and supporters with a zeal, passion, and willingness to do anything to show their connection to the cause.  They will come up with slogans to rally around, concepts to defend, and worlds to conquer.  In the hands of good, this can be a wonderful thing.  In the hands of evil, it is horrific.  There is a tell tale sign between the two, regardless of the cause,  one seeks to lift up all humanity, the other seeks only the lifting up of a select group and the destruction of other groups.  All avenues of human reality can be commandeered or even hijacked to this end: religion, governance, sports, and industry.

Jesus says in Luke 12:49, "I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!"  Not exactly fuzzy surfer dude Jesus there! There was a transformation to take place.  A transformation that as Simeon said to Mary about Jesus as an infant, "Behold this child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and a sign that will be opposed." (Luke 2:34)  A fire would break out that would change the course of world events, that would purify anyone brave enough to enter such a furnace.  Not all will be.  In the passage from Luke 12, He refers to how it will set family against each other.  The world was to be transformed, and how earnestly he wanted to do it.  That zeal and passion for us, the beneficiary of his actions, could not be diminished by the Cross.  His fire for us and the will of the Father, removed any trace of real fear and discouragement.  Even the moment at Gethsemane was dismissed instantaneously.  After the death, resurrection, and ascension, the Holy Spirit appeared as tongues of fire (Acts 2:3) and transformed the prayerful yet timid apostles into firebrands who would set out from the safety of the Upper Room across the world; braving pain, death, and persecution with a fire to transform the world for Christ.

In every day and age men and women have shared in that same zeal: the adventure and pressing demand of making known the Gospel in a very alive and transformative means.  Whether it was Jesuits who braved into the new world into hostile environments, or Archbishop Sheen braving the new medium known as TV, or the countless Catholic media companies and social media mediums in our day, there are many who bravely go out into the world and make known the message of Christ.  The fire is there...but it needs to burn more intensely.

In the book of Revelations, when the One Seated on the Throne (Christ) speaks words to the 7 Churches of Asia Minor, some are of comfort , some are of mild correction, and some are of utter disappointment.  Two churches where the fire is going out are referred to as 'dead' (Sardis) and so bland as to be vomited from one's mouth (Laodicea).  In both instances, they are to rekindle that fire.  In both cases we get the impression of self-satisfied churches assured of their own salvation that the fire to spread the word falls apart.  The Christian faith must have that fire.

So how are we?  Am I as a person on fire with the faith?  Do I have a passion to spread the Good News, to show mercy and compassion?  Do I speak of my faith? Or am I timid?  Do I allow myself to be silenced?  Silence is the deadliest of all things when it comes to faith.  I am not talking about the silence we need to put ourselves in a place for prayer.  I am talking about the silence when we hear the faith misrepresented, lied about, distorted, or dismissed.  Our silence becomes fertilizer for those who would attack the truth.  Our silence and inaction replaces the blood with formaldehyde.  Our silence tries to extinguish the fire that Christ came to set ablaze.

Fire, though, is not a merely a matter of words nor something to use by force.  We don't do conversion at the tip of a sword.  Our actions bearing true love and concern for God and for our brothers and sisters speak far more powerfully and eloquently than the most exquisite of words. That is not to say the exquisite words are unneeded, only that the fire within cannot remain only words. There MUST be a passion!  There must be a burning desire born of our own experience of the Living God that we lovingly want others to experience such joy and fulfillment!  

We do not belong to a safe faith.  We do not belong to a genteel country club where members get special privileges. Our faith is a fire--a transforming fire-- meant to change and purify to the better whatever it touches.  Passion cannot be faked.  Passion doesn't come instantaneously either.  Make a promise...pray for a passion..a burning zeal...a zeal that will not be silenced.  Express it not in the condemnation of others and their activities, but is modeling the reality of the transformative power of the fire that is Christ!  Pray for it!  Long for it!  Heaven is not a residence for the lukewarm and  the dead; it is where the fire of faith, hope, and love burn with the intensity of a thousand white hot suns.  That fire is not something we merely wait till later to get, it has to be now, because where there is no fire, there is no transformation, where there is no transformation, faith goes into atrophy and dies. Spend the time with the faith and learning the faith with the same fervor that a baseball fan follows the playoffs, hungry for every detail and desperately wanting to win.  Surely if we can spend such time and effort (and even resources) for something as eternally inconsequential as a sport, can we not spend at least the same time for that which is eternally consequential?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Want to Make God laugh.....

Fr Joe Corel is the Vocational Director of the Diocese of Jefferson City.

      Last Sunday, as I was listening to Fr Joe Corel’s homily, I was reminded of an old saying, “You want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.”  I look at that and both smile and wince.  It leads to a conversation I have had many times over while doing vocation work for this diocese.  God, the Creator of all things and all people,  has a plan for that creation.  That plan isn’t for things to simply run their natural course and fade into nothingness.  It isn’t for billions of souls to careen off one another in the pursuit of billions of different dreams that have little to no connection to each other.  God’s plan is for the eternal union of His creation.  To that goal each of us has a part to play.  Humanity was not created for condemnation (see Matthew 25:34).  This is not say some will not suffer condemnation (see Matthew 25:41).  God deposits in us abilities and gifts, desires and deep wants.  He deposits them and then asks us to use them in such a way as to build up rather than to tear down (see Matthew 25: 14-30); He holds us accountable for what we chose to do with our gifts and abilities and where we allowed our desires and deep wants to take us.  It makes a great difference what we do.
    In his homily, Fr. Corel, talked about these things in reference to vocations.  He readily points out that these are placed in us with a specific purpose in mind.  They are also given with specific instructions.  Who we are and what we have is to be used in order to unify by love, nurture by service, and enlighten through faith.  It is a struggle, though.  We live in a world that tells us to utilize what we have and who are to the best advantage for ourselves.  We are told to follow our passions, something that until the present age has been seen has the least noble of all motivations.  Careers and educations are built around the jockeying for the best for oneself.  We are told that if we follow our passions, we will find joy.  However, mountains of empirical data would point to the opposite.
    In a recent poll done by Forbes magazine, careers/occupations were ranked by the amount of satisfaction one had with the career.  Clergy were ranked as the most satisfied.  The tag line for the information caught my eye, “The least worldly are the happiest.”  I thought, “Hmmm, Isn’t that what Jesus said all along in the Gospels?”  As I looked at the others (Firefighters, special ed teachers, for example) it was a list of occupations that all require high service and usually get lower pay.  It was rather counter-intuitive to what society tells us.  This poll has been played out time and again.  It is our human nature: happiness and joy are not found in self-centeredness, but in service.  So why do we resist when the empirical data proves what Jesus said all along?
    In a word: trust.  To leave oneself open to God’s will requires trust.  Whether that will be towards marriage, professed religious life, priesthood, or remaining single, one must trust that God wants what is good for them and will give them the joy they so desire.  To trust means that we surrender control.  It means that we surrender our plans (as noble as they may be) and ask God what is His plan and what role do we play.  There are several common objections.  Let’s honestly deal with them.
    The first is “I don’t want to.”  Plain, simple, and up front lack of desire.  You will notice that when God calls, 99% of the time he doesn’t ask…he tells.  See Genesis 12: 1-3, Exodus 3:10, Jeremiah 1:4-5,  I Samuel 16:12, Ezekiel 2: 1-6, Jonah 1:1-2, Matthew 4:18-22, 9:9, Mark 1:16-22, 2:13-14, Luke 1:31-33, 5:1-11,27, John 1:35-39, Acts 9:5-6.  There is no ‘if you want to’ caveat attached.  In fact, God doesn’t seemed troubled in the least with upsetting any plans they had for themselves.  He had a plan for the salvation of all creation and that plan was more important to the whole than any singular plans they had for themselves.  Could each of them have said no?  Of Course.  We hear of Abraham, Moses, David, Samuel, Jeremiah, Jonah, the Apostles, the Blessed Mother, and Paul because they ended up either immediately or after a bit of rebellion saying yes.  There is no such great record of those who ran and said no, but we know they did because of the evil humanity had fallen into.  “I don’t want to” is not the answer of a loving son, but the answer of a rebel.  God leaves us it up to us to choose.  One answer carries his blessing, the other turns away from those blessings.  We should never confuse free will with the right to rebel.  Those that rebel against God cannot expect to share His blessings.  The use of free will bears its consequences.
    So is God going to curse me for not following His will?  To answer this, I turn to Numbers 13:1- 14:25.  God had brought the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt to a land ’flowing with milk and honey’ that was to be theirs.  God delivers them, provides for them, and now they are at the precipice of entering the Promised Land.  They send men to look at the land before hand.  They come back with tales that it is what God promised, but that there were also fortified cities and giants that dwelt there.  The people became scared and refused to trust God’s love and would not enter.  That was their choice.  God’s response was that they would  suffer the consequences of their choice.  They were banished from the Promised Land and left to wander in the wasteland of the desert for 40 years.  It was not what God wanted for them; it is what they chose in rejecting Him. 
    We do get to use our free will.  Free will, though has consequences.  God lets us follow those choices, but does not bless that which leads us away from His will.  Some will say that God is making their lives miserable if they don’t do what He wants.  How fair is that?  The misery doesn’t come from God taking it out on them, it comes from the isolation they have chosen.  It is unnecessary.   The joylessness and restlessness are a byproduct of disobedience.  There are so many wandering through deserts of their own creation; restless souls probing for meaning divorced from God’s will.  The bigger question is, “Why put yourself through that, when following God’s will brings such joy?”  Why go through all the drama, all the grief, and all the isolation?  What is gained through rebellion? 
    Our God is not a god who accepts excuses.  He doesn’t accept that one is too young (ask Samuel, David, and Jeremiah), too sinful (ask Peter and Paul), or just doesn’t want to (ask Jonah).  He knows who we are, after all, he made us.  He knows us better than we know ourselves.  He knows what we can be like without the fear, isolation, anger, and excuses.  He knows what we can be through His grace.  Perhaps, then, we would do better to trust even when it looks like we will have face fears, stand tall, and sacrifice our own plans for that which is so much greater.  God doesn’t care whether someone wants to follow His will.  He calls.  Our response matters.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Catholic and Proud of it

There are two types of pride.  One is a deadly sin in which a person thinks so highly of oneself so as to distort truth and leave open the possibility of grave sin.  Of course, as followers of Christ, such pride would be not merely unbecoming, but outright dangerous to us.  The other pride is a willingness to acknowledge the truth and the good of who we are and what we represent.  We are Catholics, Roman Catholics (also known as Latin Rite Catholics), directly connected to the very foundations of the Church set up by Christ in His selection of the Apostles, given birth at Pentecost by the Holy Spirit, and sustained throughout two millenia by the grace of that same Holy Spirit and through the ongoing gift of self that is Christ’s grace, especially through the sacraments.
    From its very inception, the Church has been, as Pope Francis put it, ’a field hospital’ , a respite for sinners.  We have never been a museum of the sinless and ‘living- still-among-us’ saints.  We have been and continue to be a beckoning light to our fellow sinners who so desperately need the light of Christ in their own lives.  We have been blessed over the ages by a ‘Great Cloud of Witnesses’: men and women who gave selflessly of themselves in the name of Jesus so as to preach and teach the message of Christ and to actively engage in the addressing of the needs of the human condition.  We belong to the single largest giver of aid and charity in the world.  From this great cloud of witnesses came institutions so very common to us now: college and universities, hospitals, and the advancement of the sciences.  Catholic institutions continue to be at the very forefront and vanguard of aid and assistance to the poor and needy.  We were before our time in the education of the poor, women, and our schools were desegregated long before the public schools in this country were. 
    To be sure, the Church in her 2000 year existence has not been without her troubles and scandals. Ambition and intrigue are not foreign nor have ever been foreign to her day to day life.  We have had true scoundrels in our midst.  As the Church is populated by human beings, both in her clergy and laity, all of the faults, failings, and foibles will continue to ensure that the message of conversion and repentance never go unneeded.  Yet, for all of our failings, the Church still thrives; more a testament to the power of the Holy Spirit and the grace of our Triune God than to any merely human efforts.  The gentle hand of God guides us along, sometimes despite ourselves.
    We belong to a faith not given to following the latest trend or whims of society.  She has been around for millenia; she has seen these trends flow in and out with the regularity of the tide.  She doesn’t attach herself to such whims and stays steady even when that steadiness is challenged or even reviled from within or outside of the Church.  We might tweak how we do things, but we do not change why we do things.  Christ built His Church on rock, not on sand.  Even if we are the last one standing in defense, we do not cave in to ’modern’ trends.  We look beyond the present moment, casting our lot to eternity itself.  We are undeterred by the slings, arrows, and persecutions that every age of Christians has suffered.  Truth is truth.  We are its stewards.  Her teachings are steeped in many years of thought, prayer, reflection, and practice.  We readily apply age old principles to new challenges and problems.  It is not our nature to flee or surrender.
    Knowing all this is important, because we are the next line of both offense and defense.  We are the caretakers of this message and the latest round of witnesses.  We have the task of challenging, being challenged, and inviting all into a relationship with Christ and His people.  This is not an easy task.  In fact, this task can be overwhelming to the unprepared.  It is hard to witness that which we do not know.  The most dangerous type of Catholic is the one who lacks knowledge of their faith.  There cannot be action without knowledge.  The Catholic life has a very specific look and flavor; a life marked by an adherence to humility (truth), mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and charity.  It is not a passive identity, but an active identity.  It is not a spectator sport!  It is a life in which engagement is everything!
    When we have a proper pride in who we are (better yet, in who Christ is), it shows in every aspect of our lives.  The Gospel becomes something we long to savor, not an impediment to our time and pocketbook.  It becomes the prism by which every priority is set and every attitude established.  It becomes that which tempers evil and seeks longingly for the good.  It sees service as desirable, not as a burden.  It helps us to own our Catholic heritage.  It helps us to realize that faith must be pursued with a great gusto, born of a realization that it is one of the few things we take with us after our deaths. 
    This requires two things: first a knowledge of not merely what we believe but why we believe it.  Our faith is so much more than a collection of facts, theories, and other intellectually based items for us to mentally store like multiplication tables.  Faith spurs us to act out of that knowledge with great joy.  Time must be spent in study and prayer.  It is why we offer two adult education programs in this parish.  It is why we spend the monies, time, and energy we do on the education of our youth.  It has never been our intent to send soldiers onto the field of battle unarmed or without an awareness how to use their armaments.  It is why we have a parish library.  It is why we keep attempting to have a youth program.  It is to expand the possibilities of what can be done that we have the new building.  As I tell our students, I cannot make anyone learn anything.  I simply lack the power to do such things.  I can throw out seed, so to speak.  But each one of us has to want to know, want to believe, and want to be the witnesses and servants Christ asks us to be.  We stand accountable before Him.  No one presently in this parish will be able to say there were no opportunities or materials.  Thus the second thing needed is an openness to engage others with the gifts of knowledge and wisdom afforded us.
    There is so very much work that needs to be done.  Many hands might light work.  As I said in a previous homily, this parish does not merely exist to give one a convenient time and place to go to Mass.  This parish, as are all parishes and Catholic institutions, exists to continue the mission of Jesus Christ in the proclamation of the Good News.  We receive grace through the sacraments specifically to give us the strength to engage.   No member of the parish can say that they do not have a role to play in this mission: if you are baptized, you somehow share in this mission!  We must be a place that provides welcome and rest for the weary and the seeking…all of them!  How will you engage in this mission?  How will you be made ready to use the appropriate tools?  In this parish, there are no shortage of options, I have personally seen to that.  There is work to do; those in need of what Christ offers await.  It is time for all of us to suit up for the Kingdom of God is at hand!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Death By a Thousand Cuts: Bleeding Syria

The images are heart-breaking and deeply disturbing.  They are also seemingly coming at us in steady supply.  Since the civil war within Syria erupted in March 2011, estimates place the death toll at over 100,00 and rising.  Over 2 million have been driven from their homes.  The litany of horrific atrocities committed by all sides in this conflict read like a slasher movie plot.  The dead are not just combatants, but innocent men, women, and children purposely butchered in many almost psychotically induced ways.  Christianity is being eradicated and strongly persecuted as it is in Egypt and Iraq.  Alawite and Kurd minorities are also suffering greatly.  There are no good guys in  this struggle, just a variety of different murderers.  There is no real end in sight.  One wonders what will be left when the smoke does start to clear.

What to do?  This seems to be the big question nowadays.  Our government and other other world governments are debating this after chemical weapons were used.  It was called crossing a red line.  It was barbaric that such weapons were used, to be sure.  How, though, are those 1400 or so deaths any more outrageous and barbaric than the 100,000 who were shot, beheaded, blown up , beaten and tortured, or any of the other hosts of ways the people of Syria have been butchered?  How will adding to the bloodshed by adding our weapons to the mix either through giving them one side ( a side aligned with those behind the 9/11 attacks) or by cutting out the middle man and just launching them ourselves help at all?  Has not the last 12 years of war in the Middle east assured us that violence begets violence?  Is there any sane indication that our bombing Syria will stem the crimson tide of blood already washing over Syria?  Will our involvement cause one side to cease and desist?  Will it not, perhaps, be like lacing a stick of dynamite and spilling this civil war beyond the borders of Syria?  There has got to be a better way.  We need to search for it and search quickly.  We have tried battles, war, military action, sanctions, and endless negotiations.  We have exhausted every human form of solution only to watch this endless cycle of violence continue.

Pope Francis has asked Catholics to fast and pray this Saturday with the intent of peace in Syria.  Seems simplistic doesn't it?  Not at all!  Prayer and fasting are a way of admitting our own helplessness in this matter and seeking divine answers.  After the Transfiguration account in the Gospel of Mark (9:14-29), as Jesus, Peter, James, and John are coming down from the mountain they encounter the other apostles struggling with a possessed boy who is possessed by a very violent spirit.  They are unable to exorcise the demon.  After Jesus does so, he tells them that some demons (and hence demonic activity..and what is happening in Syria is nothing short of demonic) can only be driven out by prayer and fasting.  In short we are called to face great evil with great love.  Taking the time out to be conscious enough to disrupt our eating cycles through fasting and allowing those hunger pangs and disruptions to remind us to pray and lead us to pray are acts of selfless love.  We move beyond ourselves for the sake of others.  Such prayer can have a profound affect on the the person and grant grace to clarify the right path or options.  I can assure you that the people in Syria, especially our Christian brothers and sisters need this more than more weapons and bombs!  It will definitely help to achieve more than yet more killing and maiming will ever do.

As Catholics, we are supposed to stand for that which is of peace and love.  We cannot engage in the vicious cycle of revenge.  Not in international relations.  Not is our own personal relations.  Not in Syria.  Not in our homes.  A day of prayer and fasting goes in the right direction.  Actively helping those who have been driven from their lands and homes is a step in the right direction.  Encouraging our leaders to refrain from adding yet more violence to the mix is a step in the right direction. I cannot encourage you enough to heed our Pope's call to fast and pray.  For those who are brother and sister Christian, prayer and fasting is appropriate as well.  For those who are of other faiths or no faith at all: I believe we can all agree that the current state of affairs must cease and that violence as an answer will not help this situation in the slightest.  At some point, the good have no put their foot down and say "no more".   

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Other Unnecessary Yoke: Revenge

If you have not caught on yet, I really love Zion National Park.  A lot.  It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been in my life.  It is an appropriately named park.  ‘Zion’ is from the Hebrew the name of a mount on which Jerusalem was built.  It was a sanctuary in that it was highly and easily defendable.  With its towering walls, the city of Jerusalem which was set on Mount Zion was practically unbeatable.  In both the Old and New Testament, Mount Zion became an image of God’s Kingdom and its protection.  The nations of the world were to steam towards it. At the end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelations, the new Jerusalem appears as the fulfillment of heaven.  Entrance to the city is offered but never guaranteed.  In fact, Jesus tells us to enter through the narrow gate.  Why? Because only the unyoked could pass through the narrow gate.  Last post, I wrote about how the yoke of self-centeredness prohibits us from entering heaven.  There is another yoke, born from self-centeredness that is even more deadly.  This yoke is the grudges and lack of forgiveness we carry about needlessly.

This yoke is properly called, I would suppose, the yoke of wrath.  Wrath is anger that seeks revenge.  Anger of itself is merely an emotion that alerts us that we have been hurt.  At that moment we have one of two options.  We can either dismiss the anger through forgiveness or we can allow the anger to fester into a yoke that will crush us.  That yoke then leads us to bitterness, vengeance, and further away from God.  In Dante’s poem, The Divine Comedy: Inferno, the wrathful occupy the 5th  circle of Hell, wallowing in a swamp where the angry forever are at war with one another and those who hold grudges or repressed anger drown for eternity in the venom of their own anger. Does not sound pleasant.  Nonetheless, this effectively happens when we do engage in wrath and why it becomes an iron yoke which keeps us from entering the narrow gate.

    In my continued reading of Fr Larry Richards’ book, “Surrender: The Life Changing Power of Doing God’s Will”, he talks about how the hurt and anger we carry hurts us and everyone else around us.  Mostly it hurts the individual insistent on carrying it.  The only way to relieve ourselves is to forgive.  It is the only way to throw this particularly cruel yoke from our backs.  In fact, when we act on the anger, passively or actively, we only press down harder on our own yoke.  Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die.  It has an eternal consequence.  A consequence we actually pray for every time we pray the Our Father.

    Every time we pray the Our Father, we are either making a profession of faith or are actively condemning ourselves.  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Read that line over and over again.  Spend some time praying about it!  Either this line will awash over us with great consolation or it will terrify us to our core!  That line becomes a standard.  Why would God set such a standard?  Doesn’t He understand the great harm and hurt others have done and even continue to do to us?!   What about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?

    In Matthew 5: 38-42, Jesus addresses this. “You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.  But I say to you…turn the other cheek.”  Why?  First, He knows His Father is not primarily about the revenge business.  Jesus’ presence among us itself speaks to this.  Were the Father interested in revenge against those who try to hurt Him through rebellion (sin), there would be no Jesus.  There would be nothing but divine wrath constantly tormenting us.  There would be no hope.  The Father sends the Son specifically because He is NOT interested in revenge; one who loves is not one who is enslaved by the hurts inflicted by others!  Love naturally leads to mercy.  One who is without mercy or is quick to judge is one in whom love has not fully found a home.  If God is not interested in revenge then neither can we be.

    The second reason is that God wants us to be joyful.  There can be no lasting joy where there is anger and a desire for revenge.  Jesus wants to remove such awful weights from our shoulders and enable to free us to walk uprightly and in true freedom and joy.  We benefit from our own exercise of mercy!  We know from physiology that anger has drastic negative affects on the individual: ulcers, high blood pressure, heart disease, and a whole host of physical and psychological disorders which diminish the quality of our lives.  Why would any sane person want to carry around such things?!   Mercy to the benefit of all!  A loving God wants us free from such constraints, such burdensome yokes!  There is no sane reason to keep this yoke.

    It comes down to our own oftentimes heroic decision: to no longer hold against others the damage and harm they have done.  Humility makes us realize it is not a standard we want other to hold to us and certainly not a standard we want God to hold with us.  There is no necessity to carry the yoke nor drink the poison.  None at all!  Step into the sanctuary of Zion and allow God’s mercy to wash upon you and free you.  Let go of the weight and burden of grudges and anger!  God wants better for you.  He will not pry the yoke from you.  He will, however, lift it off your shoulders should you allow Him to.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Unnecessary Yoke


In Matthew 11:28-30, we hear Jesus say to his disciples, “Come to me , all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me , for I am gentle and humble of heart.  Your souls will find rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden light.”  A yoke, for those who do not know, according to Merriam Webster dictionary, is a ‘wooden bar or frame by which two draft animals (oxen for example)are joined at the head or the neck for working together or an arched device formerly  laid on the neck of a defeated person.  It was a sign of servitude or slavery.  A person yoked, unlike an animal, was enslaved and defeated.  This passage come at the end of chapter 11 in which Jesus both chastised those who fail to put faith in Him and to thank His Father for those who do.  There are two yokes: one the people are currently wearing and one that he wishes to give us that alleviates the burden presented by the first yoke.

    So what are the yokes?  For the last month, I have been reading Fr Larry Richard’s book, “Surrender, the Life-Changing Power of Doing God’s Will.”  For the last several weeks I have also been studying humility.  In all this, it occurred to me in a much deeper way than before that the two yokes are self-centeredness and love.  Two yokes diametrically opposed to one another.  I would imagine that if one becomes accustomed to a weight, even a crushing weight, one adapts.  The yoke of this world, self-centeredness, is indeed a crushing weight.  It is a yoke that no Christian is called nor created to carry, it is an unnecessary yoke.

    It is easy to imagine that it suffices to claim the name of Christian to so many even though they still posses this yoke of iron.  This yoke tells us that happiness and peace come from self-satisfaction.  It is the primary message of this world and of our society.  It is highly destructive and wholly enslaving.  It is a perpetual drug that tells us if we just keep taking more hits that eventually we will find happiness in a lasting fashion.  But it never really works, does it?  One of the greater epiphanies I ever had happened to me when I was 24.  I realized that no amount of money would ever be enough.  I realized that no promotion or power would ever be enough.  I realized that no amount of worldly good, toys, and pleasure would ever be enough.  I realized I was living a life of perpetual want with no way to win.  It is the inevitable conclusion when we focus on the self, it leads to a profound emptiness that no worldly thing can fulfill.
    The yoke of Jesus removes the blinders from our eyes and gives us true clarity of vision.  Because it is bound in truth, it is easier and satisfying.  Selfless love is its own reward.  Love gives us the joy and contentment our hearts so desire.  It gives us peace in this life (despite the storms that rage around us) and becomes a  wellspring of God’s grace to eternal life.  In Matthew 6: 19- 20, Jesus reminds us to not accrue treasure for ourselves that by their nature can and will be destroyed, but to accrue treasure in heaven that can never be taken away nor wither away.  This yoke, because it is the yoke Christ Himself carries, is mostly carried by Him.

    I am finding, in my own life, that the more I allow the yoke of Christ to be the only yoke, the happier I am.  It comes down to a choice.  Which yoke?  The yoke that oppresses me and leads me to fields that will never satisfy?  Or the yoke carried by Christ that leads to the fulfillment of all our deepest and worthiest hopes and desires.  Christ does not make this decision for us.  We have to make it for ourselves.  Our choice determines our destiny in this life and the life to come.  I would imagine there are so many who do feel weary and tired.  I would imagine that we want to be free of worry and a slavish devotion to desires that will always remained unfulfilled.  Selfless love, in the person of Christ, is the way that breaks those fetters.

This concept is not foreign to the people of Jesus’ time.  Like the people of today, they wanted the basics, they wanted freedom from the Roman Empire, they wanted life as good as it gets.  Even among those who were satiated in the world’s goods, even these could not find rest for their souls.  They chased after anyone who said they could provide a better life.  When Jesus comes, he also says he can lead them to a better way, a better life.  But not in the way they were looking for.  They were looking for a physical satiation.  Anyone who does so is locked in self-involvement.  Self-involvement is the yoke of a defeated person; a yoke that can only crush under the weight of its undoable expectations.  What Jesus came to do was remove that yoke and give us a much lighter constraint to our actions.  His yoke was the yoke to selflessly love as God selflessly loves.  He came to utterly change the focus of each person. 

  The yoke of this world, because it is bound in selfish desire, can only lead to sin.  The yoke of this world leads the person to act as if all in this world is for their disposal.  Other persons becomes means to an end to self-gratification.  It leads to various addictions because the high afforded always goes away and needs to be re-engaged with. The yoke of this world keeps us in constant worry, seeking to hoard as much as we can for ourselves, while others suffer.  This yoke is necessary for all of the seven deadly sins. The yoke of the world can so blind us that we become like the rich man of  Luke 16: 19-31, who is so self-absorbed that he fails to even notice (let alone help) Lazarus, the beggar who laid at his door.  It causes to withhold our time, energy, and resources from God in fear that we won’t have enough.  It fills us so much that we can do all this and still demand that God give us more and become indignant and doubtful of God when more is not given.

It might sound like a weird thing to call selfless love a yoke.  Yokes do provide the person driving the team a way of maintaining direction.  The one who selflessly loves has to continually lay their own self-interest aside.  As was pointed out in the homily last week,  the humble person (without humility we cannot selflessly love) is set free from worry about oneself as is able to completely give themselves as a gift to others and to God.  It was also pointed out that without this love and humility we could never be exalted by God to the Kingdom of Heaven.  As God gives us the grace to love, to be humble, and to be freed from the shackles of selfishness, He rightly expects that we will utilize this grace and take His own yoke, that is, His own love, and make it our way of life.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Humility: The essential virtue that opens all possibility

A few weeks back I was in Zion National Park.  One morning my friend and I decided to hike a trail called "Angel's Landing".  It rises almost 1500 ft above the canyon floor below.  It was an ambitious hike, especially for one with 2 bad knees, a bad left ankle, and...well let's just face who is carrying the equivalent of a 7th grader, weight-wise, everywhere he goes.  Going up was interesting.  More often than not I sounded like Darth Vader having an asthma attack in an echo chamber.  But after saying to myself both internally and out loud that I would not be conquered, I forged on with my friend.
  After a myriad of switchbacks and a walk through a canyon that bred a false sense of security, we came to an even more daunting set of switchbacks that led to what is called Scout Lookout.  Scout Lookout sits at roughly 1250 ft above the canyon floor.  When I looked at the trail that led to Angel's Landing, I knew I was in over my head.  The last part was cut into rock, with all the people scattered on it looked more like a busy anthill than trail, and required what is called scrambling (more an exercise of climbing than walking). I knew in all honesty, that even though I had been able to make it so far, that given my weight, my bad joints, and a slight fear of heights, that it would not be wise to go any farther.  I knew, however, were I to lose the weight, finally do something about my knees, and get in better shape, that this hike could be a possibility.  It wasn't now.  I had to be honest about that even though it did embarrass me to admit it.  Had I tried, others might well have had the unenviable task of hauling me back down and I am sure would have possibly traumatized some.  I do not tell this tale to cast myself in a downward light.  It is the truth.  The truth, at the end of the day, is what is important and worthy of being acted upon.  One cannot see the truth until one engages in humility.

In preparing for the homily this weekend, a homily focusing on Luke 14: 1, 7-14, an instruction from Christ on humility, I came upon on article by Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio.  In it I found some very profound understandings of just what humility is.  I was caught with the line, "Humility does not mean looking down on oneself or thinking ill of oneself.  It really means not thinking of oneself very much at all."  Humility opens oneself to truth.  Where there is truth, one will also find God, the author of all truth.  St. John the Apostle reminds us time and again that the very nature of God is love; the complete self emptying of oneself for the good of the other.  Humility opens us to love because it opens us to properly respond to love God has already shown for us.

Humility naturally, beautifully, and powerfully leads us to move beyond ourselves and our own concerns.  It frees us from the preoccupation with self that shackles us with the chains of worrying about how we are perceived, the necessity to manipulate how we are thought of, the necessity to flaunt our wealth, power, or status, and all else that keep us from experiencing the true freedom of being those made in the image and likeness of God.  Dr. D'Ambrosio puts it so much better than I can:
The humble are free to forget themselves because they are secure.  They accept the fact that, as creatures, they are small, vulnerable, and not ultimately in control.  But they know there is a Creator who is great, omnipotent, and totally in control.  And they know that they’ve been made in the image and likeness of that Creator.  That makes gives them a dignity that they don’t have to earn and can never be taken away.  Though they’ve tarnished the divine likeness through sin, they know that the Creator came down from the heights of heaven to become human and fix what they couldn’t fix.
So when they mess up, the humble don’t have to cover up.  They just say “please forgive me,” give thanks for God’s mercy, and move on.  And when their creaturely limitations cause them to fail, they are not surprised.  They realize that they are not God.

All this is simply a way of saying that the humble are in touch with reality.  If the definition of insanity is being out of touch with reality, then our proud world with its “nice guys finish last” illusion is clearly insane.

Since the humble are secure, they are strong.  And since they have nothing to prove, they don’t have to flaunt their strength or use it to dominate others.  Humility leads to meekness.  And meekness is not weakness.  Rather, it is strength under control, power used to build up rather than tear down.
The humble are not threatened either by God’s greatness or the reflection of that greatness in the talents of others.  In fact, this is what naturally catches their eye and absorbs their attention – the goodness of God, wherever it may be found.

The form of prayer that extols God’s goodness is called praise.  The activity that honors God’s goodness in other people is called affirmation.  The humble take delight in praising God and affirming people.

The reason the humble take the last place of honor at the table is not because they think ill of themselves, but because they are preoccupied with honoring others.  And the reason people ask them to move higher is because they know this admirable attitude is rare.  In fact it is actually divine.  It is exactly the way the three Divine Persons relate to each other.  The Father glorifies the Son, the Son glorifies the Father, and the Spirit is so preoccupied with glorifying the Father and the Son that most of us feel we really don’t know much about Him.

Life is infinitely more freeing when the preoccupation with oneself and it heavy yoke are lifted from our shoulders.  Humility frees us to love and to serve.  It frees us from earthly constraints and frees us from the deceit and machinations of the devil.  It is Satan that continually tempts us towards endless self-involvement. So self deceived is he that he spreads the deception that happiness can only be found through self gratification and being served.  This is what he himself believes.  It is an empty and pain filled spiral in that deception never brings about connection with reality.  It is only distorts and frustrates.  One cannot find joy, contentment, nor peace in self-indulgence; any joy garnered is temporary at best and below expectation usually.  It is one of the main reasons we live in such a bitterly divided and angry society.  Because God wants better for us, we should as well.  The first step to experiencing the freeing love and joy we are called to and created for, first comes through humility.

Let us pray for and strive for that humility.  Let us move beyond ourselves and seek the truth.  Let us in truth know who we are, who God is, and who we are before God.  It is humility that we are given the strength to forge ahead unencumbered by the chains of self-preoccupation. It is in humility that we no longer need the accumulation of wealth, power, pleasure and honor to define us or satiate us.  It is in humility that we are no longer shackled by the fear of other people's perceptions of us. It tells us where God's action is already present and where it needs to be deepened.  The person who is humble is the person without fear and who possesses great strength and uses said strength to build up others...and takes great joy in doing so.